Why is the public terrified of innovation?

Rosie Baker
By Rosie Baker | 9 August 2016

When Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull announced his ‘innovation agenda’ there were mixed reviews. Since then, and throughout the recent election campaign, it hasn’t gained much traction and wasn’t a rallying cry for the public to vote in Turnbull as some had expected.

For the creative and media industry it represents an opportunity to fire-up, push boundaries and do what it does best. Innovation is seen as a driver of growth and agencies and marketers are consistently looking for ways to innovate and disrupt. The bigger the better. But elsewhere the response runs from nonchalance, through antipathy to terror.

At the Creative Country event in Melbourne hosted by NAB and The Australian, there was a strong argument that the debate around innovation needs to be broadened out. And a consensus that the government’s so-called ‘innovation agenda’ has largely failed to capture the imagination of the public because it isn’t an appealing prospect. In fact, that it’s “scary” and terrifying” for most people.

Turnbull’s ‘ideas boom’ a $1.1bn package backed by a $28m ad campaign intended to offer better incentives and conditions for startups to thrive, among other things. It was announced with zeal but in the post-election wash up the innovation agenda is broadly seen in a negative light. Glenda Korporaal, associate editor of The Australian who chaired a panel on innovation at Creative Country, questioned how we make it more appealing and present innovation as a positive prospect.

Ralph Ashton, founder and director of the Australian Futures Project, said: “Innovation is being talked about in a scary way for the general public – as a swell of jobs that are going to leave … there is great uncertainty.”

“If we keep talking about innovation in terms of technology and great leaps, it will continue to be scary.”

Reports such as the Economy in Transition - startups, innovation and a work force for the future, published in July by LinkedIn and StartAus, serve to highlight the impact tech is having on jobs offering the stat that 4.6 million jobs will be made obsolete. That stat translates into uncertainty around jobs and security for most people although different roles will emerge as a result.

The report finds that automation will most impact retail, accommodation and food services, warehousing and admin and support functions - which account for a huge slice of the Australian workforce. Alex McCauley, CEO of StartAus, told The Age last month that while people don't think it's the case "technology has tended to create more jobs than it destroys."
That perception that innovation and technology will mean fewer jobs is a problem for how innovation is embraced by both the public and by business.

More familiar to the media and creative industry is the perception that innovation is a good thing, typified by organisations such as Google, Airbnb and the day to day work that creative and media agencies are doing. On the panel Google’s engineering director Alan Noble espoused the company’s “moon shots” approach to driving innovation and looking for ever more ambitious ideas to develop, saying “Instead of asking for an engine to be 10x more efficient, why not make it 100x faster, or make it completely dependent on renewable fuel?”

However, that drew a frank riposte from Catherine Livingstone, president of the Business Council of Australia. She was vehement in her position that while ambitious innovation is all well and good – what’s more important is making it tangible for the masses, and encouraging small steps towards the bigger goal.

“That’s why people are terrified of innovation … if innovation is defined a moon-shot thinking it alienates people. [Small scale innovation] might not get fanfare but it can have a huge impact,” she says.

“Let’s make room for those people who in their daily job can make a small change to a pain point.”

Professor Julianne Schultz, the chair of the Australian Film Television and Radio School, was on the same page and talked about a need for innovation to be talked about more broadly than technology. She also highlighted the missing connection between innovations and what they actually mean for people and the positive impact they may have on lives.

“The problem is the Government presented [the innovation agenda] as something that was done by small niches of geeky guys … we need to find a way of talking about innovation that is more all-encompassing,” she added.

Ford Australia CEO Graeme Whickman suggested that perhaps under the government’s agenda, innovation is resented as “too sterile” with a major focus being on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) and that making it more tangible might make it more appealing concept for more people.

Earlier in the day NAB CEO Andrew Thornbury had also talked about the tendency towards incrementalism in larger organisations and the way that innovation is usually confined to technology departments. He too urged broader thinking.

“Inside big organisations, failing fast isn’t always seen as a good business strategy, incrementalism and getting things right are rewarded and this is a challenge we all need to push into,” he said.

“We need to redefine innovation from the domain of technology departments and companies and a few big ideas to being about everyone, every business, and constant incremental changes that have a cumulative impact.”

Have something to say on this? Share your views in the comments section below. Or if you have a news story or tip-off, drop me a line at rosiebaker@yaffa.com.au

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